Valerie’s Letter

One of the things I find very hard about ice skating (and yes, that adventure continues and continues to be very hard) is how much it interacts with the very human desire to be seen. I do not mean all my goals that currently feel wildly unreasonable of doing this with any grace or passing any tests, or fantasizing about being decent enough to enter an adult competition one day.

I mean the thing where I feel like I am — in the name of good boundaries — keeping a thousand secrets. Some of them are about being the scared girl, or the ugly girl, or the girl who walks with authority and has a body that looks like it can do things, except that it can’t, not yet, and I’m afraid maybe not ever.

The secrets are also about other things, wounds that should’t matter anymore: Getting kicked out of skating at age six for being too scared. That summer with the crayfish. An Outward Bound incident in fifth grade. And the absolute horror show of the required yearly gymnastics trimester at school (when you spend every gym class frightened and mocked, and then have to get up on stage to accept the “most improved in physical education” award every single year because that’s the private school version of a good, southern fuck-you cake, it stays with you).

But those things do matter. Insidiously. They’re why sometimes I offer to quit before someone else asks me to. They’re why I question what the hell it is I am doing with my life. And it’s why bad days on the ice can reduce me to tears.

I’ve been crying a lot lately. But that’s not just skating. In fact, that’s mostly not skating. It’s 2018 and the terrible confluence of trying to be a person who is doing something that’s super hard for them and trying to be a person in a world with a lot of unpersoning in it.

A lot of the time, I don’t feel very real, which is the little bit dangerous legacy of all those stories of being that kid in school, you know, the one that always seemed like a rat that had slipped into the wrong nest and was treated accordingly. Increasingly, however, I am also aware that none of this was my imagination — I’m not at all real to many others. Because I’m Jewish or queer or female or political or from my beautiful supposedly accursed city and on and on and on. And that’s wildly dangerous. I mean, that’s how people get shot. That’s what we all learned this week — again — right?

It is getting worse, it is getting closer, and it is right here.

Unpersoning makes me think of fascism, and unpersoning makes me think of Valerie, and this weird yearly obligation I’ve somehow acquired to write about her every Fifth of November. In the past, because it meant something to friends with similar but more private struggles than my own. In the present, because shit’s gone and gotten scary. It’s always been that way for some of us, but now the whole goddamn concept of the U.S., or maybe just democracy in general, is a frog in a pot on a not-as-slow-as-you-think boil.

I fell in love with Valerie’s letter, not just because of what it says, but because of its cadence. Because the prose, when spoken, feels like the way I move when I am seen. My grace and sorrow are weapons. They are wrath. And pleading. And joy.

So that’s the challenge this year: Read Valerie’s letter aloud. To yourself. To someone else. Lock yourself in a bathroom stall in the office and whisper it like a prayer. Because Valerie’s letter is about the determination to be seen, to never be unpersoned — not by anyone else and not by yourself with the wounds they gave you.

And for the love of that one inch, vote.

I don’t know who you are. Please believe. There is no way I can convince you that this is not one of their tricks, but I don’t care. I am me, and I don’t know who you are but I love you. I have a pencil. A little one they did not find. I am a woman. I hid it inside me. Perhaps I won’t be able to write again, so this is a long letter about my life. It is the only autobiography I will ever write and oh god I’m writing it on toilet paper.

I was born in Nottingham in 1957, and it rained a lot. I passed my eleven plus and went to girl’s grammar. I wanted to be an actress. I met my first girlfriend at school. Her name was Sara. She was fourteen and I was fifteen but we were both in Miss Watson’s class.

Her wrists. Her wrists were beautiful.

I sat in biology class, staring at the pickled rabbit foetus in its jar, listening while Mr. Hird said it was an adolescent phase that people outgrew… Sara did. I didn’t.

In 1976 I stopped pretending and took a girl called Christine home to meet my parents. A week later I moved to London, enrolling at drama college. My mother said I broke her heart, but it was my integrity that was important. Is that so selfish? It sells for so little, but it’s all we have left in this place. It is the very last inch of us…

… But within that inch we are free.

London: I was happy in London. In 1981 I played Dandini in Cinderella. My first rep work. The world was strange and rustling and busy, with invisible crowds behind the hot lights and all the breathless glamour. It was exciting and it was lonely. At nights I’d go to Gateways or one of the other clubs, but I was stand-offish and didn’t mix easily. I saw a lot of the scene, but I never felt comfortable there. So many of them just wanted to be gay. It was their life, their ambition, all they talked about… And I wanted more than that.

Work improved. I got small film roles, then bigger ones. In 1986 I starred in ‘The Salt Flats.’ It pulled in the awards but not the crowds. I met Ruth working on that. We loved each other. We lived together, and on Valentine’s Day she sent me roses, and oh god, we had so much. Those were the best three years of my life.

In 1988 there was the war…

… And after that there were no more roses. Not for anybody.

In 1992, after the take-over, they started rounding up the gays. They took Ruth while she was out looking for food. Why are they so frightened of us? They burned her with cigarette ends and made her give them my name. She signed a statement saying I seduced her. I didn’t blame her. God I loved her. I didn’t blame her… But she did. She killed herself in her cell. She couldn’t live with betraying me, with giving up that last inch.

Oh Ruth.

They came for me. They told me that all my films would be burned. They shaved off my hair. They held my head down a toilet bowl and told jokes about lesbians. They brought me here and gave me drugs. I can’t feel my tongue anymore. I can’t speak. The other gay woman here, Rita, died two weeks ago. I imagine I’ll die quite soon.

It is strange that my life should end in such a terrible place, but for three years I had roses and I apologized to nobody. I shall die here. Every inch of me shall perish…

… Except one.

An inch. It’s small and it’s fragile and it’s the only thing in the world that’s worth having. We must never lose it, or sell it, or give it away. We must never let them take it from us.

I don’t know who you are, or whether you’re a man or a woman. I may never see you. I may never hug you or cry with you or get drunk with you. But I love you. I hope you escape this place. I hope that the world turns and that things get better, and that one day people have roses again. I wish I could kiss you.

– Valerie

 

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The story is the most important thing.

Every year on November 5, I post Valerie’s Letter from V for Vendetta. I never meant for it to be a tradition — one year it was a whim, and for a few years after that that someone would ask about it or say they looked forward to it, and then it just became a thing.

Some years, I’ve just posted the letter. Some years, I’ve written more. But no year has been quite like this year, and I’ve been noodling at the edges of this post for months. Don’t get excited about that. That doesn’t necessarily herald fine writing, probably quite the opposite. It’s just a way of saying 2016 has been a long, strange, horrible slog for me too. And then on Tuesday we vote.

If you follow my Twitter you know I talk about this election a lot and work with data regards it, as I have for many elections previous. You probably also know that I love politics as a sport, and suffer from the same disease  much of our media does — a bias towards strong narrative, towards anxiety, towards running up to the cliff edge but not going over it.

Which makes it pretty hard to say, This is election is really scary. This is not hyperbole. You need to pay attention. Especially when half of the discussions about Trump seem to come down to whether he’s an actual fascist or just stylistically fascist as if one of those scenarios is going to turn out totally okay if he wins the presidency.

Look, 2016 has been a weird year full of heartbreak and loss. Change too — some of it good, and none of it that I’m ready for yet. Over and over again, terror felt like my watch word – medical terror, financial terror, political terror. The terror too of being left behind. Of not being enough. Of failing. And failure.

Meanwhile, Brexit’s a nightmare; Trump is unthinkable; and a regional political scandal involving someone I went to university with has forced me to relive the very chunk of time in which I first encountered V for Vendetta. That, too, was not a good year.

Valerie’s Letter – and Valerie herself – always fascinated me for how it, and she, are a demand for humanity against all evidence to the contrary. It is certitude in the face of gaslighting, identity in the face of how easily our bodies are discounted, dissembled, and dissolved. Valerie’s letter says, No. I am not who you say I am. I am who I say I am. I am who my story says I am. I may be a writer, but that is something very hard for me.

Writing is swimming against the tide.

It is for me I know I know I know I am not a person and I know I know I know I am not good and I know I know it is because I am queer and have a cunt and believe I am something other than the things that have happened to me and have a right to say all of it regardless of your contempt or the lack of simplicity and purity in anything that I’ve ever done or anything that I ever am.

It’s the drowning breath. It’s not yet. It is the reminder I am nowhere as near okay or as functional as I can mostly pretend to be. It is about mortality and precariousness.

So here’s what I want to say about Valerie’s Letter this year: The story is the most important thing. Your story is the most important thing.

Because stories are weapons. And shields. Tools. Strategies and tactics. And I believe they can help save us from all sorts of things – from this particular tide of political darkness sweeping increasingly from country to country, from the hatred of our neighbors, from our own self-doubt, and from our own despair. I believe stories are what give us the power to fight when there are no other options, and I believe they are succor against the coming dark when there are even fewer options than that.

How will stories matter as this year comes to a close? As 2017 dawns as a messy aftermath or a darker road? I don’t know. In a year like 2016 — when I’m just trying to get through, when we’re all just trying to get through — I am not really sure that I care.

But I do know that I still exist.

And so do you.

And so does Valerie.

If you are a person with a say in your government, please use it.

Please vote.

I don’t know who you are. Please believe. There is no way I can convince you that this is not one of their tricks, but I don’t care. I am me, and I don’t know who you are but I love you. I have a pencil. A little one they did not find. I am a woman. I hid it inside me. Perhaps I won’t be able to write again, so this is a long letter about my life. It is the only autobiography I will ever write and oh god I’m writing it on toilet paper.

I was born in Nottingham in 1957, and it rained a lot. I passed my eleven plus and went to girl’s grammar. I wanted to be an actress. I met my first girlfriend at school. Her name was Sara. She was fourteen and I was fifteen but we were both in Miss Watson’s class.

Her wrists. Her wrists were beautiful.

I sat in biology class, staring at the pickled rabbit foetus in its jar, listening while Mr. Hird said it was an adolescent phase that people outgrew… Sara did. I didn’t.

In 1976 I stopped pretending and took a girl called Christine home to meet my parents. A week later I moved to London, enrolling at drama college. My mother said I broke her heart, but it was my integrity that was important. Is that so selfish? It sells for so little, but it’s all we have left in this place. It is the very last inch of us…

… But within that inch we are free.

London: I was happy in London. In 1981 I played Dandini in Cinderella. My first rep work. The world was strange and rustling and busy, with invisible crowds behind the hot lights and all the breathless glamour. It was exciting and it was lonely. At nights I’d go to Gateways or one of the other clubs, but I was stand-offish and didn’t mix easily. I saw a lot of the scene, but I never felt comfortable there. So many of them just wanted to be gay. It was their life, their ambition, all they talked about… And I wanted more than that.

Work improved. I got small film roles, then bigger ones. In 1986 I starred in ‘The Salt Flats.’ It pulled in the awards but not the crowds. I met Ruth working on that. We loved each other. We lived together, and on Valentine’s Day she sent me roses, and oh god, we had so much. Those were the best three years of my life.

In 1988 there was the war…

… And after that there were no more roses. Not for anybody.

In 1992, after the take-over, they started rounding up the gays. They took Ruth while she was out looking for food. Why are they so frightened of us? They burned her with cigarette ends and made her give them my name. She signed a statement saying I seduced her. I didn’t blame her. God I loved her. I didn’t blame her… But she did. She killed herself in her cell. She couldn’t live with betraying me, with giving up that last inch.

Oh Ruth.

They came for me. They told me that all my films would be burned. They shaved off my hair. They held my head down a toilet bowl and told jokes about lesbians. They brought me here and gave me drugs. I can’t feel my tongue anymore. I can’t speak. The other gay woman here, Rita, died two weeks ago. I imagine I’ll die quite soon.

It is strange that my life should end in such a terrible place, but for three years I had roses and I apologized to nobody. I shall die here. Every inch of me shall perish…

… Except one.

An inch. It’s small and it’s fragile and it’s the only thing in the world that’s worth having. We must never lose it, or sell it, or give it away. We must never let them take it from us.

I don’t know who you are, or whether you’re a man or a woman. I may never see you. I may never hug you or cry with you or get drunk with you. But I love you. I hope you escape this place. I hope that the world turns and that things get better, and that one day people have roses again. I wish I could kiss you.

– Valerie

V for Vendetta: Please believe

I don’t know who you are. Please believe. There is no way I can convince you that this is not one of their tricks, but I don’t care. I am me, and I don’t know who you are but I love you. I have a pencil. A little one they did not find. I am a woman. I hid it inside me. Perhaps I won’t be able to write again, so this is a long letter about my life. It is the only autobiography I will ever write and oh god I’m writing it on toilet paper.

I was born in Nottingham in 1957, and it rained a lot. I passed my eleven plus and went to girl’s grammar. I wanted to be an actress. I met my first girlfriend at school. Her name was Sara. She was fourteen and I was fifteen but we were both in Miss Watson’s class.

Her wrists. Her wrists were beautiful.

I sat in biology class, staring at the pickled rabbit foetus in its jar, listening while Mr. Hird said it was an adolescent phase that people outgrew… Sara did. I didn’t.

In 1976 I stopped pretending and took a girl called Christine home to meet my parents. A week later I moved to London, enrolling at drama college. My mother said I broke her heart, but it was my integrity that was important. Is that so selfish? It sells for so little, but it’s all we have left in this place. It is the very last inch of us…

… But within that inch we are free.

London: I was happy in London. In 1981 I played Dandini in Cinderella. My first rep work. The world was strange and rustling and busy, with invisible crowds behind the hot lights and all the breathless glamour. It was exciting and it was lonely. At nights I’d go to Gateways or one of the other clubs, but I was stand-offish and didn’t mix easily. I saw a lot of the scene, but I never felt comfortable there. So many of them just wanted to be gay. It was their life, their ambition, all they talked about… And I wanted more than that.

Work improved. I got small film roles, then bigger ones. In 1986 I starred in ‘The Salt Flats.’ It pulled in the awards but not the crowds. I met Ruth working on that. We loved each other. We lived together, and on Valentine’s Day she sent me roses, and oh god, we had so much. Those were the best three years of my life.

In 1988 there was the war…

… And after that there were no more roses. Not for anybody.

In 1992, after the take-over, they started rounding up the gays. They took Ruth while she was out looking for food. Why are they so frightened of us? They burned her with cigarette ends and made her give them my name. She signed a statement saying I seduced her. I didn’t blame her. God I loved her. I didn’t blame her… But she did. She killed herself in her cell. She couldn’t live with betraying me, with giving up that last inch.

Oh Ruth.

They came for me. They told me that all my films would be burned. They shaved off my hair. They held my head down a toilet bowl and told jokes about lesbians. They brought me here and gave me drugs. I can’t feel my tongue anymore. I can’t speak. The other gay woman here, Rita, died two weeks ago. I imagine I’ll die quite soon.

It is strange that my life should end in such a terrible place, but for three years I had roses and I apologized to nobody. I shall die here. Every inch of me shall perish…

… Except one.

An inch. It’s small and it’s fragile and it’s the only thing in the world that’s worth having. We must never lose it, or sell it, or give it away. We must never let them take it from us.

I don’t know who you are, or whether you’re a man or a woman. I may never see you. I may never hug you or cry with you or get drunk with you. But I love you. I hope you escape this place. I hope that the world turns and that things get better, and that one day people have roses again. I wish I could kiss you.

– Valerie

I post this every year. Every year, I think perhaps I should not.  I think of the need to explain to Americans that Guy Fawkes Day is not about supporting revolution. I think about how the V masks get used in American politics. I think about the binary nature of this incredibly effective and affecting piece of writing makes it irredeemable and cruel for some.

And then I post it anyway.

Because I don’t ask it to speak for or to anyone but me.  But it’s become more and more personal to me over the years, wound in with my history, with my anxieties not just about politics, but with the medicalization and institutionalization of the marginalized.  My celiac symptoms developed the day I saw the V for Vendetta film.  I spent at least a week thinking the movie had merely traumatized me into illness because I trusted a story more than I trusted my own sense of my own body. This is what we are taught, that we are not our own.

So the cadence of this piece is, always, my posture and my grief.

That it is a backstage story is always less-remarked on than I think it should be.  All lives are backstage stories, after all.

It is strange how all its dates live in the past now. They didn’t once. And it was terrifying.

Valerie’s Letter Day

It’s Valerie’s Letter Day, and so I’m posting it again, the way I always do, despite the fact that I have not reread the graphic novel in years or rewatched the movie ever.  Mainly, because I’m afraid to.

Both forms of the story hit at sort of terrible moments in my life.  The college situation, when I first read the graphic novel, I’ve talked about before to probably the fullest extent I’ll ever want to; it leaves out a lot.  The day I watched the V for Vendetta film, alone at a crappy theater in Chelsea, was the day I got sick.

At I first thought was food poisoning, what my baffled doctors suggested might be anything from gall bladder disease to cancer, and what ultimately turned out to be my far less scary but seriously unpleasant celiac disease.  But, for the first week, before all that happened, I thought I was have a psychosomatic reaction to the film’s long montage-based sequences of medicalized torture as political punishment.

When I read Valerie’s Letter, I know grace, poetry, survival, and pride.  When I engage with its larger context, however, I just feel afraid.  As much as that’s terrible, it’s also probably should be.

I’ve whispered I was born in Nottingham in 1957, and it rained a lot to myself more times than I really know how to explain.  I’ve wished that to be something I’ve been less needful of, and over time, it’s even been true; the world as I experience it today is, as relates to Valerie’s letter, barely recognizable from 1989.  And as glad as I am of that, that we have roses (again) and that Valerie never quite was, I am also remain so damn glad of that sentence about a place I’ve never been and a year fifteen before I was born.

I don’t know who you are. Please believe. There is no way I can convince you that this is not one of their tricks, but I don’t care. I am me, and I don’t know who you are but I love you. I have a pencil. A little one they did not find. I am a woman. I hid it inside me. Perhaps I won’t be able to write again, so this is a long letter about my life. It is the only autobiography I will ever write and oh god I’m writing it on toilet paper.

I was born in Nottingham in 1957, and it rained a lot. I passed my eleven plus and went to girl’s grammar. I wanted to be an actress. I met my first girlfriend at school. Her name was Sara. She was fourteen and I was fifteen but we were both in Miss Watson’s class.

Her wrists. Her wrists were beautiful.

I sat in biology class, staring at the pickled rabbit foetus in its jar, listening while Mr. Hird said it was an adolescent phase that people outgrew… Sara did. I didn’t.

In 1976 I stopped pretending and took a girl called Christine home to meet my parents. A week later I moved to London, enrolling at drama college. My mother said I broke her heart, but it was my integrity that was important. Is that so selfish? It sells for so little, but it’s all we have left in this place. It is the very last inch of us…

… But within that inch we are free.

London: I was happy in London. In 1981 I played Dandini in Cinderella. My first rep work. The world was strange and rustling and busy, with invisible crowds behind the hot lights and all the breathless glamour. It was exciting and it was lonely. At nights I’d go to Gateways or one of the other clubs, but I was stand-offish and didn’t mix easily. I saw a lot of the scene, but I never felt comfortable there. So many of them just wanted to be gay. It was their life, their ambition, all they talked about… And I wanted more than that.

Work improved. I got small film roles, then bigger ones. In 1986 I starred in ‘The Salt Flats.’ It pulled in the awards but not the crowds. I met Ruth working on that. We loved each other. We lived together, and on Valentine’s Day she sent me roses, and oh god, we had so much. Those were the best three years of my life.

In 1988 there was the war…

… And after that there were no more roses. Not for anybody.

In 1992, after the take-over, they started rounding up the gays. They took Ruth while she was out looking for food. Why are they so frightened of us? They burned her with cigarette ends and made her give them my name. She signed a statement saying I seduced her. I didn’t blame her. God I loved her. I didn’t blame her… But she did. She killed herself in her cell. She couldn’t live with betraying me, with giving up that last inch.

Oh Ruth.

They came for me. They told me that all my films would be burned. They shaved off my hair. They held my head down a toilet bowl and told jokes about lesbians. They brought me here and gave me drugs. I can’t feel my tongue anymore. I can’t speak. The other gay woman here, Rita, died two weeks ago. I imagine I’ll die quite soon.

It is strange that my life should end in such a terrible place, but for three years I had roses and I apologized to nobody. I shall die here. Every inch of me shall perish…

… Except one.

An inch. It’s small and it’s fragile and it’s the only thing in the world that’s worth having. We must never lose it, or sell it, or give it away. We must never let them take it from us.

I don’t know who you are, or whether you’re a man or a woman. I may never see you. I may never hug you or cry with you or get drunk with you. But I love you. I hope you escape this place. I hope that the world turns and that things get better, and that one day people have roses again. I wish I could kiss you.

– Valerie